Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy

Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC

This month, our special guest bloggers, Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, and Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC, authors of 100 Questions and Answers about Sports Nutrition & Exercise, offer expert insights on the benefits of exercise during pregnancy.

When you’re struggling to keep a meal down during the first trimester, adapting to a changing body in the second, or huffing and puffing to make it to the bathroom as you near your due date then hitting the gym might be the last thing on your mind.  But a growing body of research suggests that exercise has big benefits for both you and your baby.  Even a simple walk around the block or a session of stretching can lead to an improved mood, better sleep, an easier labor and a quicker recovery.

For all of our adult life we have been told that regular exercise provides a myriad of benefits such as keeping weight off and helping prevent diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.  During pregnancy, there are even more reasons to keep moving- or get moving, even if you haven’t had an exercise routine in the past.

Exercise during pregnancy has been found to:

  • Reduce risk of pregnancy complications: In one 2012 study, women who participated in fitness programs four times a week were less likely to develop gestational diabetes and less likely to have unplanned cesarean sections than those who didn’t exercise.
  • Lower odds of delivery complications: In a study of women in Spain, women who exercise three times a week gained less weight during pregnancy and were less likely to have macrosomic babies (babies weighing more than nine pounds at birth). Having a heavier baby can lead to complications for both mother and baby during delivery.
  • Faster post-delivery recovery: the more you increase your pregnancy fitness, the faster you will recover physically after childbirth and the more fit you will be after delivery.  In the same study, women who exercised recovered earlier after labor, resuming regular activities faster than those who did not exercise.
  • Boost your mood: Women are more susceptible to depression during pregnancy, with an estimated one in two of all women reporting increased depression or anxiety while they are expecting. Research has found that exercise during pregnancy reduces depression by releasing endorphins that help improve mood while diminishing stress and anxiety.
  • Lower blood pressure: Blood pressure occasionally increases during pregnancy, but too much and it can be a warning sign of preeclampsia. Staying active during pregnancy- in one recent study by simply walking regularly- has been found to keep blood pressure from rising.
  • Ease back and pelvic pain: There’s no denying that the growing fetus puts extra pressure on your lower body, resulting in low back pain and aching pelvis. Exercising, however, may result in less lower-back and pelvic pain especially during the latter stages of pregnancy.
  • Fight fatigue: Low –level tiredness plagues many women during the first trimester and then again late in the third trimester. While it may seem paradoxical, sometimes getting too much rest can make you feel more tired.  So getting a little more exercise (never pushing to exhaustion) may be the right solution to improving energy levels.  Going for a walk or doing a yoga class can make a big difference to boosting your energy levels.
  • Improve sleep: While many pregnant women report having difficulty falling asleep, recent studies have shown that women who exercise consistently (as long as it is not too close to bedtime) fall asleep quicker, sleep deeper and wake up feeling more refreshed that women who did not exercise.
  • Relieve constipation: An active body encourages active bowels. Walking briskly for 30 minutes can go a long way to keeping pregnant mothers regular.

Exercise benefits during pregnancy don’t just end with the mother. Recent research, whilst still ongoing, is beginning to show promising results and potential benefits for the fetus as well.  A few of the potential benefits of exercising during pregnancy for your baby:

  • Reduce susceptibility to diabetes: One study found that babies born to mothers who exercised during pregnancy had better insulin sensitivity, even as adults.
  • Boost brain health: Some preliminary research is showing that some mothers who exercised during pregnancy had children that were less prone to neurodegeneration in later life.
  • Lower BMI: Mothers exercising during pregnancy have children that were significantly less prone to obesity and diabetes with benefits extending into adulthood.
  • Fitter heart: One group of researchers looking at mothers who worked out during pregnancy found lower fetal heart rates at 36 weeks gestation (higher heart rates can be a sign of fetal distress). A follow up study found the benefits of the mother’s exercising even after birth.

Most studies on the benefits of exercise during pregnancy look at the effects of 150 minutes of activity per week. Those sessions could be five 30-minute sessions or three or four longer periods.  The benefits are incremental, researchers believe, which means that some exercise- even if you don’t hit that 150-minute mark- is better than none.  Anything that raises your heart rate and gets your muscles active counts- including walking, jogging, yoga, Pilates, dance, aerobics and swimming.  Remember, start out slowly, build up gradually and avoid contact sports and activities.

Stay tuned for next month’s article that will focus on postpartum nutrition tips.

This six-part blog series discusses the current nutrition and exercise recommendations for women before, during, and after pregnancy.  Pregnancy can certainly be a trying and confusing time and these articles are intended to provide answers to the most popular questions women (and often their providers) ask.

http://www.jblearning.com/catalog/9780763778866/More information can be found in 100 Questions and Answers About Sports Nutrition and Exercise by Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD and Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC.

Do you have a nutrition or exercise question? If so, submit them to adefronzo@jblearning.com. Questions will be answered on a monthly basis.

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